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Harlem Opera Stars Haitian History

Meeting in Miami, Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrié and Harlem-born writer Carl Hancock Rux discovered they shared the same bedside reading: The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier. This fantasy-infused historical novel recounts political unrest surrounding Haiti’s independence in 1804. It’s partly inspired by 17th-century Haitian revolutionary François Makandal, who led a failed slave uprising. Duval-Carrié explores Haitian cultural history in his art. Rux wanted to reflect Miami’s Haitian and Cuban communities. The two bonded immediately.

They began a decade-long collaboration to create Makandal, an opera that previewed at the Guggenheim last month. Conceived and written by Rux, commissioned and produced by Harlem Stage Gatehouse, with music by Yosvany Terry, and directed by Lars Jan, it features sets and costumes by Duval-Carrié. “I wanted very much for this work to be born out of the visual imagination of Edouard’s art. It is so full of mythology, fantasy, and color,” Rux says.

Edouard Duval-Carrié's Los at Sea, 2013, one of the artist's signature Caribbean nighscapes. R. TORRES

Edouard Duval-Carrié’s Lost at Sea, 2013, one of the artist’s signature Caribbean nightscapes.

R. TORRES

Projections of Duval-Carrié’s paintings carry forward the opera’s story concerning Caribbean immigrants in a raft, adrift at sea at night, hoping to reach the United States. As they narrate memories of perilous journeys, the plot incorporates flashbacks to Makandal and other moments merging myth and reality. There’s a digital panorama created from Duval-Carrié’s recent exhibition “Imagined Landscapes” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Painted on aluminum, Duval-Carrié’s art avoids the sunny, bright colors found in 19th-century landscapes. With exquisite irony, he depicts lush Caribbean islands at night, haunted by reminders of lucrative slave-holding economies.

Designing for this opera, says Duval-Carrie, “is totally within my realm. I’ve worked a lot on migration.” His sets evoke the fluid world of Caribbean history long depicted in his art. Both are thrilled that, after encountering many challenges finding musicians and funding, Makandal is finally happening. “It’s like being able to cross water,” Rux says. “I feel like my feet are landing on shore.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Haitian History Enters the Spotlight in Harlem.”

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